Analysis: Political Fallout

President Struggles to Regain His Pre-Hurricane Swagger

By Jim VandeHei and Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, September 24, 2005

COLORADO SPRINGS, Sept. 23 -- President Bush flew here ahead of Hurricane Rita on Friday to show command of a federal disaster response effort that even supporters acknowledge he fumbled three weeks ago.

The president said he wanted to see the emergency response system from the ground floor at U.S. Northern Command headquarters. "I need to understand how it works better," he told reporters before leaving Washington. But Bush was also embarking on a broader, and possibly more important, mission: restoring strength and confidence in his presidency.

A president who roamed across the national and world stages with an unshakable self-assurance that comforted Republicans and confounded critics since 2001 suddenly finds himself struggling to reclaim his swagger. Bush's standing with the public -- and within the Republican Party -- has been battered by a failed Social Security campaign, violence in Iraq, and most recently Hurricane Katrina. His approval ratings, 42 percent in the most recent Washington Post-ABC poll, have never been lower.

A president who normally thrives on tough talk and self-assurance finds himself at what aides privately describe as a low point in office, one that is changing the psychic and political aura of the White House, as well as its distinctive political approach.

In small, sometimes subtle but unmistakable ways, the president and top aides sound less certain, more conciliatory and willing to do something they avoided in the first term: admit mistakes. After bulling through crisis after crisis with a "bring 'em on" brashness, a more solemn Bush now has twice taken responsibility for the much-criticized response to Hurricane Katrina.

Aides who never betrayed self-doubt now talk in private of failures selling the American people on the Iraq war, the president's Social Security plan and his response to Hurricane Katrina. The president who once told the United Nations it would drift into irrelevancy if it did not back the invasion of Iraq last week praised the world body and said the world works better "when we act together." A White House team that operated on its terms since 2000 is reaching to outside experts for answers like never before.

"I think they are showing a greater willingness to look for new suggestions, new ideas, new approaches than at any time in the presidency," said former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). "I think they realize the larger system has failed: They are not where they want to be on Iraq; the first week after Katrina was an absolute failure."

David Gergen, who has advised Republican and Democratic presidents going back to the 1970s, said that "there is no question [Bush and his advisers] changed their tone. . . . That is a chastened White House talking."

Some White House aides agree the president has changed his pitch since Katrina but said it reflects the nature of the challenges confronting Bush, not a loss in confidence or a policy shift. "It's a different tone," said Michael J. Gerson, the president's strategic adviser who helped speechwriter William McGurn draft the Katrina address. "That was not a strategic or tonal calculation. This was the president himself not being satisfied with the response."

White House aides see Rita as a chance to regain whatever was lost by Katrina, and they have gone out of their way to make sure the government is on a war footing for the arrival of Rita. But the effort got off to a bumpy start Friday. Shortly after Bush told reporters a planned trip to San Antonio to visit with search-and-rescue teams was not a publicity stunt and would not interfere with emergency response efforts on the ground, he was forced to scrub the event because the workers needed to ship out early. "We didn't want to slow up that decision in any way," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

The president has cleared much of his schedule to focus on rebuilding the states devastated by Katrina and prepare for the wrath of Rita. Despite grumbling among conservatives, Bush said he will spend whatever it takes to put Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama back together, and he has told aides he will do the same for Rita's victims. There are private talks of tearing up Bush's agenda to change the second-term focus to the poor and preventing future disasters.

Most of all, White House aides want to reestablish Bush's swagger -- the projection of competence and confidence in the White House that has carried the administration through tough times since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Bush likes to say his job is to make tough decisions and leave the hand-wringing for historians and pundits. He almost never entertains public doubt, which is part of the White House design to build a more powerful presidency. The term "strong leader" appears in at least 98 speeches he has given during his White House years, according to a database search, and was the subtext of his 2004 campaign strategy. He favors provocative language, declaring that he wanted Osama bin Laden "dead or alive" and taunting Iraqi insurgents to "bring 'em on."

He projects this in nonverbal ways as well, the arms-swinging gait of his walk, the glint in his glare, the college boy grin that flashes even in sober moments. Some advisers consider this supreme self-confidence a secret to Bush's success enacting his first-term agenda and winning reelection in a tough political climate. It reinforced Bush's image as a decisive leader, which was an important attribute in an election colored by the threat of terrorism, and helped calm congressional Republicans who disagreed with some of the president's ideas but were won over by the force of his style.

The confidence was contagious, with White House officials and Republicans in Congress as certain as the president himself in what Bush was doing. But over the course of six months, a growing number of Republicans inside and out of the White House have noticed an administration less sure-footed and slower to react to the political environment surrounding them.

A top Republican close to the White House since the earliest days said the absence of a "reelection target" and pressure from first lady Laura Bush and others to soften his second-term tone conspired to temper Bush's swagger well before Katrina hit. "A reelection campaign was always the driving principle to force them to get things together," said the GOP operative, who would speak candidly about Bush only if his name was not used. He said the "brilliance of this team" was always overstated. "Part of the reason they looked so good is Democrats were so discombobulated." Since the election, this official said, White House aides reported that Laura Bush was among those counseling Bush to change his cowboy image during the final four years.

William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, said the psychological turnabout started with the failed Social Security campaign, billed as the number one domestic priority six months ago. "The negative effect of the Social Security [campaign] is underestimated," Kristol said. "Once you make that kind of mistake, people tend to be less deferential to your decisions." This coincided with a growing number of Republicans losing faith in Bush's war plan, as Republicans such as Sens. Chuck Hagel (Neb.) and Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) openly questioned the president's strategy.

In a series of private conversations over the past few months, aides began second-guessing how they handled the Social Security debate, managed the public perception of the Iraq war and, most recently, the response to Katrina. The federal CIA leak investigation, which has forced Deputy White House Chief of Staff Karl Rove and others to testify before a grand jury, seemed to distract officials and left a general feeling of unease, two aides said. Aides were calling reporters to find out what was happening with Rove and the investigation. "Nobody knows what's going to happen with the probe," one senior aide said.

The result, say some Republicans, has been a president and White House team that has not been as effective, efficient and sure-footed running government as it was running for reelection. "The shift from campaigning to governing has perhaps not been as quick as everybody hoped," Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) said.

The most immediate consequence of the new governing reality for Bush is the growing number of Republicans shedding their fear of publicly challenging the White House. Consider Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.). The conservative senator, a Bush loyalist from day one, in the past week has suggested Bush might be a political liability for him in Pennsylvania and then told a local newspaper that the White House botched the Social Security effort. At private meeting on Capitol Hill this week, John Fund, a conservative columnist for the Wall Street Journal, Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R-Minn.) and others complained about a White House that seems sluggish and way off its game, participants said.

Still, Bush's allies said any stumbles are anomalies and changes in tones momentary. They note, for instance, that the administration is still winning political victories, such as the likely confirmation of the president's nominee for chief justice, John G. Roberts Jr.

"You adapt to the circumstances and the circumstances are different," said Mark McKinnon, Bush's political consultant and friend. But he added he detected no loss of confidence within the Bush team. "I get zero sense of that. This is an administration and a president that are like the Marines -- they're used to taking the beach, they're used to getting shelled. But they dig in and they do their jobs."

McKinnon said if anything Bush thrives under the pressure. "I've never seen the president burdened by the presidency," he said. "He's built to deal with really big events. It's in his DNA."

Baker reported from Washington.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company